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   Automated Voting Moves Toward a Paperless Trail, Raising Concerns about Potential Abuses

BACKGROUND:

Automated Voting Moves Toward a Paperless Trail, Raising Concerns about Potential Abuses

Special to the Chronicle

The lack of a voter-verified paper ballot that could be hand counted, critics charge, appears to constitute a “concealed casting and counting of the vote,” which would render the federal Voting Rights Act unenforceable.
In 1889 mechanical voting machines made their debut in US elections. Around 1964 computerized optical scanners were introduced. Today less than 2% of US citizens use a hand-counted paper ballot. While it appears that many other democratic nations still use hand-counted paper ballots, that situation is rapidly changing over to new technologies.

Can this be viewed as progress? Those concerned about the integrity of the voting process are raising serious concerns.

Government Oversight: There is no US federal government agency charged with oversight of voting systems companies. It appears that no government agency, including The Federal Election Commission (FEC), has a complete list of companies doing business in the US. Worldwide there appear to be at least 70 vendors. The FEC lists only 19 that operate in the US; the Texas-based National Association of State Election Directors (NASED) lists 16, while the IFES Buyers Guide lists 64 vendors worldwide, with about 40 based in the United States. There is at least one company that is neither on the FEC nor NASED list, and that is the Bermuda-based Accenture (formally Andersen Consulting), which has been awarded the contract for the online US military vote in 2004.

Ownership: There are no government standards or restrictions on who can sell and service voting machines and systems. Foreigners, convicted criminals, current office holders, political candidates, former CIA directors, and news media organizations can and do own these companies. It appears that these companies are dominated by members of the Republican Party and foreign investors.

Standards: There are no federal mandatory standards or certification process for voting systems. The Federal Voting Systems Standards (FVSS) used by the three NASED's approved Independent Test Authorities (ITA) to "certify" companies’ software and firmware are voluntary, outmoded, industry guidelines. To date, 37 states have adopted them. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) sought to establish a committee to formulate strong technical standards. Although no such committee has been created, $650 million of the $4 billion Congress appropriated for new voting systems are being authorized using HAVA funds.

Paper Ballots, Paper Trails, Audits: There is no federal requirement for voter-verified paper trails, a paper ballot, or independent auditability of voting systems. Many experts say that a paper ballot that can be verified by the voter and then hand counted is vital to ensure that votes are cast and counted properly, and to allow for legitimate recounts. Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) has introduced legislation HR 2239 to require all voting machines to produce a voter-verified paper trail.

Constitution/Voting Rights Act: Voting machines (without a voter-verified paper ballot that could be hand counted) appear to constitute a concealed casting and counting of the vote (i.e., it cannot be observed by poll watchers or Federal Observers), which makes the federal Voting Rights Act unenforceable. Under Section 8 of the Voting Rights Act, Federal Observers may be authorized to observe "...whether persons who are entitled to vote are being permitted to vote...(and) whether votes cast by persons entitled to vote are being properly tabulated." Nelldean Monroe, Voting Rights Program Administrator for the US Office of Personnel Management, stated in November 2002 that there is no training and no opportunity for Federal Observers to observe the accuracy of voting machines.

Election Fraud and Irregularities: Voting machines are relatively easy to rig and almost impossible to monitor. There are several ways the mechanical lever machines can be rigged. Whoever controls access to the machines could, one-by-one, rig the machines. Thus the opportunity for election fraud exists, but it is also somewhat limited. Computerized voting opens the door for a single individual to manipulate votes in elections across the country. Voting system firmware and software is proprietary (i.e, a trade secret) which can be hacked by outsiders or "updated" at any time by company technicians, much like Microsoft sends automatic upgrades to a home computer. In the same way, electronic manipulation of votes could take place before, during, and after an election. It can be done offsite and remotely. There is a long history of election irregularities that suggests that vote fraud using voting machines has been occurring. Republicans appear to be the main beneficiaries. In the 2002 election, 74% of upset elections went to Republicans by as much as 9-14% outside of the margin of error of the pre-election polls, according to reporter Alastair Thompson of Scoop. Many voting security experts agree that voting machines represent a Pandora's Box for the election process. Some argue that voting machines should not be used in elections and that a return to the paper ballot is called for. Others say that if voting machines are used in elections, effective technical standards and a voter verified paper ballot that is hand-counted are necessary to ensure honest elections.


A forum about voting integrity and computerized voting machines will be held in Philadelphia on September 7. See Computerized Voting Machines Mean Threat to Democracy, Say Public Policy Experts.


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This story was published on August 15, 2003.
  
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